R.E.M. was an American rock band from Athens, Georgia, formed in 1980 by drummer Bill Berry, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist/backing vocalist Mike Mills, and lead vocalist Michael Stipe. One of the first alternative rock bands, R.E.M. was noted for Buck's ringing, arpeggiated guitar style, Stipe's distinctive vocal quality and obscure lyrics, Mills's melodic basslines and backing vocals, and Berry's tight, economical style of drumming.
R.E.M. released its first single—"Radio Free Europe"—in 1981 on the independent record label Hib-Tone. The single was followed by the Chronic Town EP in 1982, the band's first release on I.R.S. Records. In 1983, the group released its critically acclaimed debut album, Murmur, and built its reputation over the next few years through subsequent releases, constant touring, and the support of college radio. Following years of underground success, R.E.M. achieved a mainstream hit in 1987 with the single "The One I Love". The group signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1988, and began to espouse political and environmental concerns while playing large arenas worldwide.
By the early 1990s, when alternative rock began to enter the mainstream, R.E.M. was viewed by subsequent acts such as Nirvana and Pavement as a pioneer of the genre. The band released its two most commercially successful albums, Out of Time (1991) and Automatic for the People (1992), which veered from the band's established sound and catapulted it to international fame. R.E.M.'s 1994 release, Monster, was a return to a more rock-oriented sound, but still continued its run of success. The band began its first tour in six years to support the album; the tour was marred by medical emergencies suffered by three of the band members.
In 1996, R.E.M. re-signed with Warner Bros. for a reported US$80 million, at the time the most expensive recording contract in history. Its 1996 release, New Adventures in Hi-Fi, though critically acclaimed, fared worse commercially than its predecessors. The following year, Bill Berry left the band, while Stipe, Buck, and Mills continued the group as a trio. Through some changes in musical style, the band continued its career into the next decade with mixed critical and commercial success, despite having sold more than 85 million records worldwide and becoming one of the world's best-selling music artists. In 2007, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in their first year of eligibility. R.E.M. disbanded amicably in September 2011, announcing the split on its website.
In January 1980, Michael Stipe met Peter Buck in Wuxtry Records, the Athens record store where Buck worked. The pair discovered that they shared similar tastes in music, particularly in punk rock and protopunk artists like Patti Smith, Television, and the Velvet Underground. Stipe said, "It turns out that I was buying all the records that was saving for himself." Through mutual friend Kathleen O'Brien, Stipe and Buck then met fellow University of Georgia students Mike Mills and Bill Berry, who had played music together since high school and lived together in Georgia. The quartet agreed to collaborate on several songs; Stipe later commented that "there was never any grand plan behind any of it". Their still-unnamed band spent a few months rehearsing in a deconsecrated Episcopal church in Athens, and played its first show on April 5, 1980, supporting the Side Effects at O'Brien's birthday party held in the same church, performing a mix of originals and 1960s and 1970s covers. After considering Twisted Kites, Cans of Piss, and Negro Eyes, the band settled on "R.E.M." (which is an initialism for rapid eye movement, the dream stage of sleep), which Stipe selected at random from a dictionary.
The band members eventually dropped out of school to focus on their developing group. They found a manager in Jefferson Holt, a record store clerk who was so impressed by an R.E.M. performance in his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that he moved to Athens. R.E.M.'s success was almost immediate in Athens and surrounding areas; the band drew progressively larger crowds for shows, which caused some resentment in the Athens music scene. Over the next year and a half, R.E.M. toured throughout the Southern United States. Touring was arduous because a touring circuit for alternative rock bands did not then exist. The group toured in an old blue van driven by Holt, and lived on a food allowance of $2 each per day.
R.E.M. was pivotal in the creation and development of the alternative rock genre. AllMusic stated, "R.E.M. mark the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock." In the early 1980s, the musical style of R.E.M. stood in contrast to the post-punk and new wave genres that had preceded it. Music journalist Simon Reynolds noted that the post-punk movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s "had taken whole swaths of music off the menu", particularly that of the 1960s, and that "After postpunk's demystification and New Pop's schematics, it felt liberating to listen to music rooted in mystical awe and blissed-out surrender." Reynolds declared R.E.M., a band that recalled the music of the 1960s with its "plangent guitar chimes and folk-styled vocals" and who "wistfully and abstractly conjured visions and new frontiers for America", one of "the two most important alt-rock bands of the day." With the release of Murmur, R.E.M. had the most impact musically and commercially of the developing alternative genre's early groups, leaving in its wake a number of jangle pop followers.
R.E.M.'s early breakthrough success served as an inspiration for other alternative bands. Spin referred to the "R.E.M. model"—career decisions that R.E.M. made which set guidelines for other underground artists to follow in their own careers. Spin's Charles Aaron wrote that by 1985, "They'd shown how far an underground, punk-inspired rock band could go within the industry without whoring out its artistic integrity in any obvious way. They'd figured out how to buy in, not sellout-in other words, they'd achieved the American Bohemian Dream." Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate said, "They invented a whole new ballgame for all of the other bands to follow whether it was Sonic Youth or the Replacements or Nirvana or Butthole Surfers. R.E.M. staked the claim. Musically, the bands did different things, but R.E.M. was first to show us you can be big and still be cool." Biographer David Buckley stated that between 1991 and 1994, a period that saw the band sell an estimated 30 million albums, R.E.M. "asserted themselves as rivals to U2 for the title of biggest rock band in the world." Over the course of its career, the band has sold over 85 million records worldwide.
Alternative bands such as Nirvana, Pavement, Radiohead, Coldplay, Pearl Jam (the band's vocalist Eddie Vedder inducted R.E.M. into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), and Live, have drawn inspiration from R.E.M.'s music. "When I was 15 years old in Richmond, Virginia, they were a very important part of my life," Pavement's Bob Nastanovich said, "as they were for all the members of our band." Pavement's contribution to the No Alternative compilation (1993) was "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence", a song about R.E.M.'s early days. Local H, according to the band's Twitter account, created their name by combining two R.E.M. songs: "Oddfellows Local 151" and "Swan Swan H". Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was a fan of R.E.M., and had unfulfilled plans to collaborate on a musical project with Stipe. Cobain told Rolling Stone in an interview earlier that year, "I don’t know how that band does what they do. God, they’re the greatest. They've dealt with their success like saints, and they keep delivering great music."
During his show at the 40 Watt Club in October 2018, Johnny Marr said: "As a British musician coming out of the indie scene in the early '80s, which I definitely am and am proud to have been, I can't miss this opportunity to acknowledge and pay my respects and honor the guys who put this town on the map for us in England. I'm talking about my comrades in guitar music, R.E.M. The Smiths really respected R.E.M. We had to keep an eye on what those guys were up to. It's an interesting thing for me, as a British musician, and all those guys as British musicians, to come to this place and play for you guys, knowing that it's the roots of Mike Mills and Bill Berry and Michael Stipe and my good friend Peter Buck."